NBA Playoffs Preview (Part 2): Western Conference
by Keith Frederick(NBA)
Posted on April 22, 2006, 2:40 PM
Welcome to Part 2 of the Sports Oratory's preview of the NBA Playoffs. In this part Sports Oratory writers Keith Frederick and Mike Maloney will cover the Western Conference matchups. For coverage of the Eastern Conference, check out Part 1.
(1) San Antonio vs. (8) Sacramento
Keith: San Antonio, the league's defending champions haven't missed a step, breaking the 60-win plateau and looking destined to wear the crown again. Tim Duncan's numbers are down a bit from his career averages of 20 points, 12 boards and 2.5 blocks, but he's still the heart of the team. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili the Spurs' All-International backcourt, though, have become as much a part of coach Gregg Popovich's game plain as Mr. Fundamental down in the block. Parker is averaging almost 19 points per game and almost six assists, and is a solid defender. Ginobili is relentless on both sides of the ball as the high-energy member of San Antonio's Big Three. But the Spurs win, first and foremost, because they're deeper than any other team in the league. The rest of the usual starting five - Bruce Bowen and Nazr Mohammed - bring the defensive tenacity to wear teams down. And looking at the first five off of the San Antonio bench, it wouldn't make a bad starting five: Brent Barry, Nick Van Exel, Michael Finley, Robert Horry and Rasho Nesterovic. Odds are that group is better than any team the Knicks have put on the court all year.
The Kings make you think, "Oh, how the mighty have fallen." But the truth is Sacramento's highly-regarded squad from a few years ago missed their window at winning a championship and the Maloof brothers had to retool the team. Chris Webber, Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic would have left anyway, and the Kings had to get what they could. They chose to build around point guard Mike Bibby. A smart move, considering Bibby's averages of 21.1 points and 5.6 assists. With Bibby running the offense, the Kings have seven players averaging at least 9 points. But scoring has never been a question with this team. Defense has. To counteract that appearance, Sacramento brought in perennial head case/troublemaker Ron Artest, who also happens to be one of the league's best defenders. Artest has made a difference, averaging almost 17 points, 5 boards, 2 steals and a block per game. And the Kings are on a roll, having won 9 of their last 11, with one of those wins coming against San Antonio. But defense, Artest or not, is still a question. And if you want to beat the Spurs, you can't have any questions.
San Antonio wins series, 4-1
(2) Phoenix vs. (7) Los Angeles (Lakers)
Mike: The Phoenix Suns were certainly looked at as championship material at the beginning of the season. However, an injury to Amare Stoudamire, arguably the best player on the team, went down with an injury, and aside from a small comeback, has been unavailable to the team since. Despite that, the team has still managed to lock up the #2 seed in the Western Conference, and can still hang with any other team in the conference. A lot of this has to do with Steve Nash who is putting up stellar numbers (18.8 ppg, 10.5 apg, 4.2 rpg); however, much of their success should also be credited to Shawn Marion (21.8 ppg, 11.8 rpg), who has surpassed anyone's expectations for him this year. In addition, Rajah Bell, Boris Diaw, and Leandor Barbosa are all averaging over 13 ppg. This is a very offensive minded team, as it was last year, averaging over 108 points a game, while giving up 102. While missing Stoudamire, and now, Kurt Thomas (8.6 ppg, 7.8 rpg), hurts them a bit as far as inside presence goes, their ability to run the court and get the fast break points in addition to a 40% three-point shooting percentage (They're averaging 10 3-pointers a game) has allowed the team to make up for what they might lack inside.
The fact that the Suns aren't known as a dominant inside team (They've been out rebounded 45.9-41.8 per game over the regular season) is an advantage the Lakers are going to need to take advantage of if they're to pull off an upset of the Suns. The Lakers aren't a big inside presence either, although they do have three guys who average over 6 rpg (Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm, Lamar Odom), and another over 5 rpg (Kobe Bryant). The Lakers are the better defensive team, only allowing 96.9 ppg, and out-stealing their opponents 7.66-6.54 (The Suns only average 6.70 while giving up 7.21 per game). If the Lakers can't set the pace, and force Phoenix to play a half court game, the Suns will run all over LA. The one obvious advantage the Lakers have is Kobe Bryant. Kobe is averaging 35.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.5 apg, and 1.84 spg. He is considered by many to be the most talented player in the NBA, and has single-handedly carried the Lakers kicking and screaming into the playoffs. With his play on the court, and coach Phil Jackson's strategy, Lamar Odom, Smush Parker, and Kwame Brown all have exceeded expectations. This can be a dangerous Lakers team, particularly because they will be playing with nothing to lose, given that just making the playoffs was considered quite the accomplishment for this team. In a five game series, the Lakers would have a very good chance of being able to stun the Suns and take the series; however, with a best-of-seven, beating the Suns in 4 games just isn't something the Lakers are going to be able to handle. Phoenix' constant offensive outpouring will wear down Los Angeles eventually, and they will advance on to the next round.
Phoenix wins series, 4-2
(3) Denver vs. (6) Los Angeles (Clippers)
Keith: Think back to three years ago, the 2002-03 NBA season. The Nuggets and the Clippers were the league's most hapless franchises. Denver hadn't been to the playoffs in 8 years, L.A. hadn't been there in 6. Now they're meeting up in a 3 vs 5 matchup. What happened? Carmelo Anthony and Elton Brand happened, that's what. Anthony has taken this year as his own personal showcase. He's averaging 26.5 points and 5 rebounds and has proven himself the best "big shot" player in the league by hitting five game-winners this season. But the Nuggets aren't a one-man show. Five other players are averaging between 12-13 points. Kenyon Martin (13 points, 6 boards per) and Marcus Camby (13 and 12, plus leading the league in blocks at 3.3 per) combine with Anthony to form one of the best frontcourts in the game. And Andre Miller is still a playmaker, averaging 13.7 points and 8 assists a game, although he's still not the gamechanger that Denver expected when they signed him in 2003. Coach George Karl's squad lost four straight to finish the regular season, but Karl is a good coach with a lot of playoff experience, so Denver should be able to shake off that streak.
The Clippers make their first playoff appearance in almost a decade this year and they literally could not have done it without Brand. The 6-foot-8 power forward is one of the most talented post players in the league, averaging 24.7 points, 10 boards and 2.5 blocks this season. Even though the Clippers' success hinges on Brand, he didn't do it alone. L.A.'s top six all average in double figures, with point guard Sam Cassell (17.2 points) and Corey Magette (17.8) leading the charge. In the post, center Chris Kaman is solid but unspectacular, averaging 10 points and 9 boards. Kaman and Brand should match up well with Martin and Camby, especially since Martin is nursing a sore knee. But who guards Anthony? Rookie James Singleton did well against the young superstar earlier this year, but if the playoffs are the ultimate and Anthony is Mr. Clutch 2.0, is a rookie from Murray State going to be to contain him? I think not.
Denver wins series, 4-2
(4) Dallas vs. (5) Memphis
Mike: This year's Dallas Mavericks team has been labelled by some as 'the best Mavs team ever', despite having no Steve Nash, and no Michael Finley. While Dallas' clear MVP is Dirk Nowitski (26.6 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 2.8 apg), he has been helped this year by constant solid performances by Jason Terry (17.1 ppg, 3.8 apg), Josh Howard (15.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Jerry Stackhouse (13.0 ppg). From a team standpoint, the Mavericks have done a great job in outperforming its opponents in nearly every category (99.1-93.1 ppg, 42.2-38.3 rpg, 18.0-17.5 apg, 7.23-6.54 spg, 5.95-4.88 bpg 46.2%-44.3% FG%). This team doesn't have a lot of superstars on it, and really, aside from Nowitski, and maybe Stackhouse, the average fan probably doesn't know much about anyone else on the team. In fact, many thought this might be somewhat of a down year for the Mavs. Instead, they have had a lot of players step up, and came away with the second best record in the conference behind San Antonio.
All this doesn't bode well for the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies were a loss away from getting the much easier task of playing the Denver Nuggets, but instead they were matched up with the much more dangerous Dallas Mavericks. On the bright side for the Mavs, they are a fairly deep team, with seven players averaging double digits ppg (Although Damon Stoudamire [11.7 ppg, 4.7 apg] will miss the playoffs due to injury). Paul Gasol (20.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 4.6 apg) has continued to step up his game this year, and will be a formidable matchup for the Mavs. Gasol will need help in the inside, however, as the Mavs have a lot of big guys to clog up the hole in Nowitzki (7-0), DeSagana Diop (7-0), and Erick Dampier (6-11). Memphis is pretty good from behind the line, shooting 37.4% and making 7.2 3-PT shots a game, with Bobby Jackson and Mike Miller shooting 38.9% and 40.7% from behind the arc, respectively.
Overall, this is a surprisingly good Grizzlies team going against a very dominant Mavericks team. One of the few bright spots for Memphis is that Dallas has had some consistency and leadership issues heading into the end of the season, which could allow the Grizzlies to catch the Mavs a bit off guard. Unfortunately for Memphis, however, this is a much more solid Mavericks team than in years past, and the previously offensively-minded team has been replaced by a much more defensive team capable of shutting down its opponents. Look for Dallas to regroup and really take it to a Grizzlies team that just lacks the overall talent to be a top-tier team.
Dallas wins series, 4-2
Thanks for reading our preview into the first round of the NBA playoffs, and check back for future NBA coverage on the Sports Oratory.